Everyone experiences some stress and anxiety in their everyday lives and we are all plagued by our fair share of fears and worries. These feelings are a perfectly normal reaction to stressful or threatening situations, and in some circumstances are vital to our survival, allowing us to cope with dangerous situations when they arise.
It is only when these responses are either experienced or greatly magnified in situations out of context that a problem occurs. Anyone who suffers from panic attacks will recognise these symptoms - sweating, butterflies in the stomach, pounding heart and muscle tension.
A normal stress response prepares us to cope with difficulties or danger by triggering the release of adrenaline and other body chemicals that set into motion mental and physical changes in our bodies. Our breathing rate increases, as does our blood pressure and heart rate. Our digestive system is also affected and we tend to perspire more and our muscles tense up.
This is called the "fight or flight" response and has its origins in our ancestors, when they had to face dangers to their survival from predators. These physiological changes prime our bodies to be able to react quickly by either fighting or running. In other words, they evolved to help us deal with short-term stress - once the stressful situation passes, the body returns to normal.
Today, we no longer face threats from wild animals but have other more "modern" stresses instead, such as pressure at work, domestic issues, deadlines etc. Unfortunately for many people, these turn out to be long-term rather than short-term stresses.
With the "fight or flight" response, problems arise when the stressful situation continues and the body is kept in this heightened state of alert for a long time. We begin to experience unpleasant physical symptoms such as muscular pain, constant headaches and digestive problems.
Mentally, we begin to suffer from negative moods and emotions, causing our attitude towards other people to change, often for the worse. Eventually, high blood pressure and other stress-related ailments can leave us feeling anxious and fearful for our health, causing us to feel distress. This distress then causes us to become more stressed and so a "stress-distress" cycle is started.
In this situation a full blown panic attack can easily be triggered. Such triggers are many and varied - what triggers a panic attack in one person, for instance, may not trigger one in someone else.
Suffering a panic attack for the first time is a terrifying ordeal for anyone. It is not uncommon for the sufferer to believe they are dying or going insane. What is important to remember is that after this first attack, the fear of suffering another panic attack can itself set the "stress-distress" cycle in motion, thereby increasing the likelihood of further attacks.
Breaking the stress-distress cycle is therefore the key to controlling panic attacks. This can be achieved in a variety of different ways including:
• Progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
• Breathing control techniques.
• Cognitive behavioural therapies.
It is also vital that anyone suffering from stress, anxiety and panic attacks should seek help from their doctor as soon as possible, in order to prevent the condition from becoming chronic and thus more difficult to treat.
Don't let panic attacks control your life.